My first appetiser arrives after a welcome by the
restaurant’s head waiter, a man of such vitality, I don’t realise he’s on
crutches until much later, when he apologises for being a bit slow, stating
‘it’s very busy and, oh well, I’ve only got one leg!’ as he bursts into
contagious laughter. It’s a strip of vegan ‘chicken’ on turmeric rice served in
bamboo followed by fried shitake on a cloud of lime soufflé.
This being a biographically inspired meal, each ingredient represents
a stage in the life of Helene An, though while my tablemate is served a juicy
anecdote along with every dainty, my veggie journey through history is devoid
of such extras – mind you, there might not have been any seitan-based chickens
running around the Vietnam of An’s childhood.
It’s soon on to the main room, an open space with subtly beautiful
decor and surprisingly bouncy basket-style chairs. An enormous birdcage
overgrown with real plants hangs above my head and a glass wall to my right
offers views of An’s legendary Crustacean restaurant on the ground floor. It
sounds spectacular, but really, the interior is tasteful, polished and high-end
with a few fun quirks marrying Beverly Hills extravagance with the joie de
vivre of tropical Asia: I quite simply love it.
About two and a half appetisers and at least as many cocktails
into the night, it’s only now I’m getting to enjoy Da Lat Rose’s twelve main
courses, almost all of which are absolutely exquisite: think DIY bánh mì with pickled
mini vegetables, mushroom pâté, smoked baby corn and spicy sauce, tapioca with coconut
sorbet, rambutan and dragon fruit, and my favourite, a portion of
unapologetically intense garlic rice topped with 24-carat gold – a culinary
wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Still, it’s not all perfect. Individual courses and the
story behind them are often explained at such length, they’re lukewarm by the
time I dig in. And why an array of simple, shaved vegetables (the most mundane
offering of the night) is served as ‘Asian-style vegan ceviche’, I don’t quite
understand. Then again, the region around the city of Da Lat, from which the
restaurant takes its name, is at one point proclaimed to be the ‘the
Switzerland of Vietnam’ – an idea that makes me giggle, having previously
All this can be forgiven, however, in light of the one thing
I hope to see incorporated in the plant-based journeys of tomorrow: the
storyline. For the very raison d’être of a gastro-biography lies in the fusion
between epicurean delights and the moments that have inspired them. In contrast,
the foods I enjoy on my visit, albeit of superb quality, are inspired ‘more or
less by what’s in the kitchen today’, my waiter admits.
Not that I’m not impressed. With intricately crafted and stunningly displayed delicatessen alongside some ten cocktails (don’t you dare suggest I got less discerning with each) and a diamond-draped crowd you’d expect at an Academy Awards after-party, the famous chef’s latest venture is a foray not only into her own past, but also into the future of gastronomy.
Sure, it takes a different approach to the matter than Ladurée,
but the experience is no less visionary and in any case; comparing the two
makes little sense. The eateries’ only common denominator, perhaps, is their
location: a stepping-stone of a city home to progressive thinkers and early
adopters, where each novelty becomes the talk of the town. Though while in
other destinations, hype might outplay the actual quality of food, this simply isn’t
the case in Beverly Hills. The exceptional standard of dining in the city, some
will say, is to be attributed to its many spoiled mouths. But I disagree.
I think it’s to do with the local lust to distinguish
oneself. The idea of making something – anything – an indicator of style,
sophistication and class. And that doesn’t come at mediocre quality. To truly
stand out, one has to turn novel ideas into sparkly realities. A practise
Beverly Hills excels at, meaning locals and visitors to 90210 alike will find
what many a spectator would say they’re looking for the most: something truly fabulous
to talk about.
Steffen’s journey to Beverly Hills was courtesy of the Beverly Hills Conference & Visitors Bureau. Visit www.lovebeverlyhills.com for more.